Pinochet: brutal dictator and would-be English gentleman

Click to follow
The Independent Online
GENERAL AUGUSTO Pinochet held formal power in Chile for 17 years, from 1973 to 1990, but he recently complained that during his frequent visits to London nobody recognised him except in Burberry's. And except, it now seems, at New Scotland Yard.

Many people seem to have had trouble recognising Gen Pinochet for what he is, including the man who appointed him commander-in-chief of Chile's army.

Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected Marxist in the Western world, thought he was a pillar of rectitude. As a military coup erupted on 11 September 1973, the president was under the illusion that his army chief was being held hostage, and was being prevented from swinging his forces in defence of the presidency and the constitution.

It was not until mid-morning that Allende, in the last few hours before he took his own life, realised that the man he had trusted was the arch- traitor. Actually, Gen Pinochet had been a party to the long-planned coup only for the last four days of it. The military plotters originally excluded him because he was seen to be too close to the President. But just months after the coup he had manoeuvred himself into a position to sideline the commanders of the Chilean navy, air force and gendarmerie, concentrating power totally into his own hands.

As a young army officer, Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, born 82 years ago into an unremarkable middle-class family, took interesting postings on courses in the United States or as military attache in Chilean embassies abroad. He made it to commander-in-chief of the army by sheer application, his high, fluty voice hiding an iron will.

After those fateful weeks in 1973, when he had consolidated his power, President Pinochet put aside the battledress and dark glasses in favour of the general's flowing cape. His politics remained brutal.

On the day of the coup he suggested that Allende be stripped and flung out of a plane. He started a series of massacres which left at the very least 3,000 dead, and put his new corps of secret police, the Dina, in charge of instruments of torture which included dogs specially trained to violate women. He had his predecessor, General Carlos Prats, who had taken a dim view of the putsch, murdered in Buenos Aires, and had a senior Christian Democratic leader made into a mental vegetable by another terrorist attack in Rome.

General Pinochet was always much keener on the British than on Americans, whom he considered "rude". Outfacing the US government he despised, he sent another of his squads to blow up one of Allende's ambassadors in his car at Dupont Circle, in the heart of the diplomatic quarter in Washington.

He gave extensive help, by contrast, to British forces in 1982 as they engaged in war with Chile's neighbour and traditional enemy, Argentina, over the Falklands. Britain became a principal supplier of arms to Chile.

As public opinion moved against him in the late 1980s he decided to resign as president, but made sure he clung to command of the army until this year. Then he took the job of senator for life under the constitution he had himself written, first having carefully arranged amnesty for his, and all his cohorts' crimes.

The Chilean strongman always felt safe and at home in London. He loved the restaurants, from the River Cafe in Hammersmith to Fortnum and Mason's in Piccadilly. A month ago, in his most recent major interview, with the Santiago daily El Mercury, he preened himself in the red tie he had bought in London. And this month he returned, getting British surgeons to fix his back.